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Iraq's Leading Cleric Asks UN to Set Date for General Elections - 2004-02-26

Iraq's leading Shi'ite cleric is calling for the United Nations to guarantee a date for elections by the end of the year.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in a statement that he wants the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution to guarantee a date for general elections. The Shi'ite cleric said the poll should be held before November 15, a date that is in line with recommendations made by the U.N. earlier this month.

The statement by Ayatollah al-Sistani is a tacit agreement with a U.N. report released earlier this week saying that elections would not be possible before the June 30 transfer of power to the Iraqi transitional authority.

The Ayatollah has been a leading opponent of a U.S. plan to select the transitional authority through regional meetings, and, instead, called for general elections. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has concluded that holding such elections before the end of June would not be feasible.

The ayatollah's statement followed a meeting with Shi'ite members of the Iraqi Governing Council. The council delegates said afterwards they agreed with Mr. al-Sistani's demand for U.N. Security Council guarantees of a date for the elections.

Ayatollah al-Sistani has long said that only a freely elected Iraqi authority would have the legitimacy to govern.

The United States has acknowledged the local caucuses are not the only acceptable way to select Iraq's interim government, but insists the June 30 date for the hand-over is firm.